So…I met Karen Tamerius this morning. She is the founder of a group called Smart Politics. I’m not sure why she calls her organization that. Having spent a little time with it, I think I might have called it “How To Escape the Perils of Engagement.”
Her article in the New York Times on Thanksgiving morning was actually called “How to have a conversation with your angry uncle over Thanksgiving.” The format of the article is very engaging. First, you get to choose whether you want to play the part of a liberal and Uncle is a conservative or vice versa. I chose liberal.
You saw the hyperlink. If you want to go through the mill before you read my complaints about my own going through the mill, I wish you the best of luck. Hurry back.
How it works
Uncle Bot says three things and I get to respond to the one I chose. Dr. Tamerius then tells me whether it was a good response or not. And what, pray tell, is a “good response?”
The first thing Uncle Bot says is, “Great, well let me tell you something…” or “Trump has been great for America” or “Just look at the economy, it’s booming.” I have a choice of three responses. I get to respond “Trump’s good for the rich,” or “The job numbers are misleading” or “So how are you doing financially?”
That last one is the right answer. When I chose it, I got this response from Dr. Tamerius. “
Good choice. The goal at this point is to start a conversation. The easiest way to do that is by asking questions – ones that are non-threatening, open-ended and non-leading.
Questions are powerful because they make people feel safe, demonstrate respect, gather useful information, contribute to understanding, elicit empathy, build relationships and encourage self-reflection. Asking people about their own experiences in a nonjudgmental way is an especially good opening because it gives them an opportunity to talk about a subject they care and know more about: themselves.
Had I chosen the one about job numbers, I would have gotten this:
Not a good choice. This will turn the conversation into a debate over facts and figures. That’s a problem because people tend not be persuaded by contrary evidence and may even end up believing more strongly in their original position.
And had I chosen the one about Trump being good for the rich, I would have gotten this:
Not a good choice. This argumentative response will turn the conversation into a debate where you and Uncle Bot seek to score points and “win” rather than learn from each other or collaborate to elucidate the truth. In addition, the exclamation point suggests scorn and exasperation which will make the Uncle Bot angry. The goal is to have a conversation, not fight. Try this response instead:
I was still feeling pretty good about Dr. Tamerius. Once you neutralize the early hostile responses and signal to Uncle Bot that you are not someone who needs to be opposed, you can move on to actually…you know…talking about politics or economics or the frayed social systems.
To my great frustration, that never really happens. There are four more exchanges in the article. Each is a conservative thrust and a personal parry. Uncle Bot, in other words, actually is talking politics, but you are not. So it turns out that “talking politics” with Uncle Bot means only getting away unscathed. He has ranted and you have come away unscathed.
Perhaps I should be more generous because I, myself, am a fan of coming away unscathed. But I am also a fan of talking about politics and this cycle on the Smart Politics website looks like therapy to me; it does not look like conversation. The Smart Politics website talks about “civil conversations.” That’s what I like. I wouldn’t call this time with Uncle Bot a “civil conversation” because it fails the first test; is not a conversation.
Let’s look at the rest of them just in overview. You know the system now, so you know what is “good” and what is “bad.”
In response to my first answer, Uncle Bot says either “But things would have been worse under Hillary,” or “Not that great, actually.”
I do not give either of the bad responses. The first “Why are you still talking about Hillary, that was two years ago?” The second bad response is “Did your taxes go down under the tax cut?” The first of the bad responses is clearly political; in fact, it is partisan. The second is simply fact-oriented.
The good response is a personal response.“So what are your biggest hurdles right now.?” Both of the disapproved responses move the conversation in the direction of understanding the situation as a whole—the political context or the economic context. Neither is personal; the preferred response is personal.
Uncle Bot says, in response to your question, that he is not doing very well at all. Dr. Tamerius’s “bad responses” are “You know, Trump has actually made your situation worse,” and “So the economy isn’t exactly booming.” Again, one of the bad responses is political and one economic.
The good response is, again, personal. “So you feel pretty insecure, moneywise, no matter how hard you are working?”
Uncle Bot says he doesn’t know how much longer he can last. As before, you have two bad responses that you could make. The first is “That’s why we need a stronger safety net, for people like you.” The second is, “That’s why you should have voted for Clinton.”
The good response is, “Things are tough for people like us. I’m worried about the future.” People like us? Really?
Why it doesn’t really work
There is no question that if the goal is “getting through the daunting Thanksgiving dinner,” Dr. Tamerius’s responses are the best ones. When Uncle Bot says things that are partisan or that reflect the factual world that is out there, your response is to find a way to personalize it. That might work for the entire meal, but I strongly suggest pro football for afterwards.
Furthermore, “getting through the meal unscathed” is not a bad goal if there is nothing better available. Is there really nothing better available?
Usually there is something better. Now if Uncle Bot is determined to make war about political and economic events at the table, maybe just retreating is best. But it may be worth taking a little time to find out if Uncle Bot is going to persist. There are other ways to interpret what Bot is saying.
What if he is just giving automatic answers. These are not his own views, perhaps. Maybe they are just the things he has heard his friends say in situations like this. If you cue the answers his friends always give, you will get those same answers from Uncle Bot. But what if you cue some other kind of answers?
What if he has just not yet sensed that a real political discussion is possible. His initial aggressiveness, in this case, would only be remarks that reflect his despair about finding a real discussion—a discussion where people give their own views and listen respectfully to the views of others. If he were to discover that a serious and civil discussion was possible, he might very well drop all the dismissive slogans and become a real participant.
What if he would be ready to have a real discussion—not to initiate it, which is a risky thing to do—but to respond positively to it, except that he really doesn’t know you that well. You’re Aunt Martha’s cousin from “back east” or something; why should he take the risk of being candid with you?
So there are three possibilities. Political discussion—candid and civil—would be possible in these circumstances if the barriers to it could be surmounted.
- If, for instance, you cue “out of patterns” answers from him, not the ones his buddies always use.
- Or if, for instance, you hold open the possibility that a real discussion could happen and that he should not give up hope.
- Or if, for instance, you take the time to get to know him and to see to it that he understands some of the important things about you. If those conditions are the barriers, these responses might get over those barriers.
What Dr. Tamerius proposes will not get over any barriers. It retreats from the political into the personal and stays there. No political discussion will happen.
What might work better
There is another kind of response, though. In a lot of cases—maybe not over Thanksgiving dinner—it is possible to structure the conversation so that people feel safe participating in it. I am thinking of two kinds of structures.
The first is substantive. Start with the goal. The easiest arguments to dismiss are proposals of how to reach the goal. This process is too expensive, that one is too slow, the other one is too risky. But when the goal is clarified first—and that may require coming back to it several times—then everyone is responsible for devising some means to that goal. What if the goal, for instance, is that every citizen who wants to vote has a chance to have his or her vote counted on an equal basis with all other voters?
It is virtually impossible to oppose that as a goal. But how can it be achieved? Here we come up against the old objections (expensive, slow, risky, and those are just examples I used above) but now in a new setting. If that won’t work, we can now ask, what will work? What do you propose? Everyone who knocks down a proposal has the obligation to make a better proposal than the one he has opposed. That is the automatic effect of beginning with a goal everyone has agreed it is important to achieve.
And it is even better if some specific time could be agreed upon for the solution to be achieved. Now means that would not work can be opposed, but also means that would not work quickly enough. Responses to global warming very often fit the time-urgent category.
The second is procedural. Broadly speaking, it simply requires that the rules of engagement protect civil agreement and disagreement, but not uncivil; they protect disagreements with persons, but not disagreements with groups.
The goal here is to return the conversation to the people who are actually there. “Liberals” in the general sense are not there, nor are “Conservatives” as a group. Even “Trump supporters” are not there as a group. This means that arguments phrased as “Trump supporters always argue…” may not be used. The argument Uncle Bot made may be used even if it is just the talking points he heard on a talk show, provided that he himself approves of the meaning and of the phrasing. We privilege him because he is there, but he has to own the views he is holding.
The second is that if the group is to protect itself from proselytizing and from flamethrowing, respectful behavior is going to have to be modeled and reinforced. There has been mockery of the formula used in the U. S. Senate, “My distinguished colleague, the Senator from Ohio, argues….” but I think that the use of some such markers of respect might help us. Maybe nothing as flowery as that, but ways of showing that you have heard and understood; something that will carry the respect due every member of the conversation.
For such a purpose, I think Dr. Tamerius’s proposals can hardly be improved on. The difference would be that these are ways of making political discourse more generous and moderate, not ways not not having political conversations at all.
You might give it some thought. I know Thanksgiving is over, but Christmas and Easter are still ahead of us and for communication about topics that really cannot be communicated about, there is always Pentecost.